N-Eaction: Pokémon Gotta Criticise 'em All!

If, like me, you love Pokémon with a passion bordering on concerning, than you’ve probably seen the latest footage of the upcoming Switch Pokémon titles. I mean, I could go into detail on what I think of what I’ve seen and how Drednaw was the best new Pokémon shown there and so on, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

No matter what kind of gaming enthusiast you ask, the chances are that they have some ideas of what they want to see from the long-running Pokémon series and if you ask enough people, you’ll start to see a few common criticisms show up. But the real question is are these criticisms justified? It’s a fascinating thought to me and I’ve been kind of thinking about it for a while now. So I’m going to go into some of these criticisms and discuss on how such a change might impact the Pokémon games.

"Pokémon keeps interrupting the gameplay to show cutscenes"

Pokémon games lately have been focusing more and more on the plot, as the hardware improves; it became easier to make cutscenes that are more dynamic. This became very apparent when Pokémon made the jump from 2D sprites to 3D models. But with it, came a new controversial aspect.

One of the most common complaints Sun and Moon gets bombarded with is that the game is often interrupted to advance the story in some way. Some people really want to just fight some Pokémon and other stuff like that. And after playing the enhanced versions of Sun and Moon, I kind of agree. Plot in a game is a notoriously difficult thing to implement, especially when the gameplay is intended to be the focus. Pokémon’s plot had been rather pushed to the side throughout the first half of the series, but then something strange happened.

NEactionPokemonImage1Nebby... GET BACK IN THE SODDING BAG!

Pokémon Black and White marked the fifth generation of Pokémon and a sudden shift in the usual Pokémon plot. While it still maintained the goal to become the Pokémon Champion, the game involved fighting against a mysterious group trying to liberate Pokémon from trainers. While it certainly wasn’t the best story that Pokémon has seen, it was a surprisingly good story that hit a good balance between cutscenes and gameplay. Since then, the games have been steadily having more cutscenes show up, annoying a lot of people in the process.

Staff at Game Freak have gone on record in saying that plot is going to be a focus in these games going forward, so I wouldn’t hold hope in this getting sorted in the near future. That said, a cutscene skip option would go a long way.

"Turn-based combat is archaic, they should move to Action RPG gameplay"

Boy, where do I begin with this one?

I suppose the obvious one is that turn-based combat is a conscious design choice. It’s a legitimate form of gameplay design and if that’s not what you want, then why are you even playing Pokémon?

But fine, let’s humour the idea. What if Game Freak decided to turn to action RPG? I can’t even begin to imagine how much work that would take to pull off, even if Game Freak were a big development company. It’s just not a reasonable suggestion to change tack like that with a game that has around 900 different creatures to build a system around.

The turn-based RPG is a lot more niche than it was a decade ago and it seems strange that people would be keen on having even less of that. Besides, there are plenty of spin-offs over the years that explore different genres anyway. Turn-based combat is one of the things that help Pokémon to stand out these days and it would be a shame if it dropped that just to be like other RPG’s. Variety is great, you know?

"There are too many Pokémon; they need to cut it down to the original 151"

Boy, if there was a sentence that would make me immediately angry with you, that would be it. While the above example is the more extreme end of this criticism, what this generally boils down to is people want less Pokémon to catch. Quite frankly, I think that sentiment is laughable, but I suppose we should look into why people would feel that way.

My immediate guess on why this is a problem for some people would be that it can be difficult to remember all of the Pokémon and what typing they are. Which is a fair point. But one detail is almost always overlooked whenever this kind of conversation comes up. Not every Pokémon in existence is available in each game. The average playthrough of a Pokémon game will never get close to seeing all the Pokémon anyway. So this is kind of a moot point. An interesting thing to note is that Pokémon Sun and Moon had a feature that showed you if a move would be effective against Pokémon you had already encountered. Whether this feature returns in the Switch titles is still a mystery.

There is a small subset of people who wants to revert to the first 151 Pokémon because they believe that any Pokémon after that aren’t worth bothering with. I don’t need to say that anyone who believes so aren’t proper Pokémon fans. The nostalgia goggles are firmly on with these people and it’s pretty selfish to boot. Imagine if you played one of the more modern games first and developed a few favourites only to have them dropped in a future game because some dope can’t understand the concept that every Pokémon has its fans.

NEactionPokemonImage2Would you want to be the one to tell Krookodile that he's potentially not in the next set of games?

You might think this is a very minor issue, but these complaints started having an influence on the 3DS Pokémon games. Both of them have the largest amount of Pokémon be from the original games, even more than the newest Pokémon at the time. It’s particularly bad in Sun and Moon where Kanto was mentioned so much, I was starting to think that Alola was bribed by the Kanto Government. This actually served to make the series feel a lot staler during this time, because the new Pokémon were side-lined by Pokémon we’ve been seeing for more than fifteen years at that point. It’s impossible to say whether Sword and Shield will have learned from this mistake, but we’ll see.

It's at this point that I should say that the majority of this article was written before E3, where we learned that Game Freak are doing the opposite of what I hoped and are actually cutting down the number of Pokémon you can get in Sword and Shield. Even if you use the upcoming Pokémon Home to transfer Pokémon, Sword and Shield flat out doesn't have some of the Pokémon in the game's data, so if you put a Pokémon into Pokémon Home that can't be caught in Sword and Shield, it's trapped there. Which is downright cheeky considering it's a paid subscription service that deletes any Pokemon you have in storage if you decide to stop paying the annual fee.

Needless to say, I'm annoyed. I always aim to cach them all, but that's gong to be impossible now. And shed a tear for the poor Pokémon fan who likes Shinx, because it's been impossible to catch one of those for 10 years now. And now they can't even transfer it from previous games. Missing Pokémon are also sure to put a dampener on the player who likes to experiment with different Pokémon after they've finished the main game. Speaking of that...

"It’s too difficult and time-consuming to get into the competitive scene"

So, let me divulge something. I play Pokémon competitively. Yes, I am aware that puts me in the nerdiest of nerds. I’m 29 and I don’t care, because it’s really fun. There’s an amazing variety of strategy involved in a Pokémon battle, and it could all hinge on using the right Pokémon at the perfect time. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t play Pokémon nearly as much as I do now.

But in order to break into this competitive scene, you’ll need to prepare a Pokémon team and it isn’t as simple as figuring out which 6 Pokémon to use and training them to level 100. There’s a smorgasbord of mechanics to help get the absolute most out of a Pokémon, and that’s where this complaint comes in.

To get a competitively viable Pokémon in Sun and Moon, you would need to breed the Pokémon you want (and make sure the father has certain moves you might want), hatch a Pokémon with the nature you want (That’s a 1 in 25 chance for each egg you hatch), influence a hidden mechanic to maximise the correct stats, train that Pokémon to level 100, collect 6 of a pretty rare item and use an in-game NPC to max out another hidden mechanic. And then do it again 5 more times.

Sound complicated? It used to be a lot harder. And that’s the rub, competitive Pokémon battling requires serious commitment and a whole lot of time and I totally get why it can be off-putting. Game Freak has been making strides to make this process easier, but there is a lot of room for improvement and I hope they continue this trend with Sword and Shield.

"It would be better if you had free control over the camera"

No, this isn’t referring to best camera shooting game, Pokémon Snap. Instead, we have probably one of the strangest common complaints I’ve seen. It’s pretty self-explanatory, really. Some players want to be able to spin the in-game camera around. But I have one big question.

What would that actually add?

NEactionPokemonImage3Don't worry Todd, you'll get your time to shine again Todd, it won't be long now Todd... Todd?

Now, don’t get me wrong, some game genres absolutely require a controllable camera. But I have never gotten into a situation where I thought, “Boy, this camera angle sucks; I wish I could move it”. Pokémon games are pretty easy-going and light on action and if you play through Sun and Moon, you’ll notice that throughout the game, the camera is utilised to provide a great view of your surroundings wherever you are. The region of Alola is designed around it, so if you were to add a controllable camera, you’d get… um… the ability to look at the back of buildings? And given that controllable cameras run the risk of getting stuck behind objects, it’s not a good trade-off, in my opinion.

"Pokémon needs to be open-world"

This is the big one. The amount of times I’ve seen someone throw around the phrase “Pokémon of the Wild” is comical. And while this kind of criticism has been going for a while before a certain Zelda game came out, they really started picking up steam in the 2 years since that happened.

A bit of context, I really dislike Breath of the Wild, the main reason being that clear and significant compromises had to be made to achieve that huge open-world that’s so beloved by its fans. I’ve played a few open-world games; Zelda, Skyrim, Xenoblade X, and in all three, there was some point where I got immensely bored long before I saw the credits roll. If Xenoblade X didn’t have such an awesome battle system, I would class it as rubbish.

The key difference between open-world adventures and games structured like Pokémon is that most open-world games resort to procedural generation in order to create their large worlds to explore. This results in a lot of boring empty space in between the interesting stuff. But I can certainly think of a few reasons why the idea of an open-world would be appealing to some.

The sense of exploration is a really attractive feature for the open-world enthusiast; they claim that a more handcrafted game like Pokémon has no opportunities for exploration because you’re constantly following some sort of path dictated by the plot. Simply put, this is nonsense; I’m going to use a game that is often cited as the beginning of the so-called “totally linear” structure that these complaints target, Pokémon Black and White. And I’ll be using Microsoft Paint to make my point, sorry about that.

NEactionPokemonImage4Only the highest quality analysis and comparisons here at N-Europe... no expense spared, you won't get this on GameXplain.

On the left is the Unova region from these games and on the right is the same picture, but with a crudely drawn red line on it. That red line (and the red spots) indicates the places the player must go to in order to reach the credits and complete the main part of the game. I think you can see where I’m going with this, but let me spell it out. Through optional exploration, you can find a large amount of places that have no bearing on the plot. You’re free to ignore all those green spots and make a beeline to the Pokémon League at the top, but there’s plenty of stuff to find if you decide to take a detour. So yeah, if you actually think Pokémon games don’t have exploration opportunities, you’ve not been exploring in Pokémon.

But there’s another problem that would arise from a theoretical open-world Pokémon game and that’s a little thing called difficulty balance. Being a turn-based RPG, Pokémon uses a traditional levelling system to gradually make your Pokémon more powerful the more they win fights. As you progress through these games, your opponents will gradually get stronger and stronger as well, which makes sense, really. But what would happen if you allowed the player to travel anywhere they want from the get-go?

Going back to Breath of the Wild as my example, I’m certain that everyone who played it had a moment when they unwittingly stumbled upon a group of enemies that quickly proved to be way out of their league in terms of strength. But no matter how strong those enemies might be, it was technically possible to triumph against them through skill and careful planning. This works because it’s a pure action game. Like I said before, Pokémon is a turn-based RPG, so what would happen if you decided to go walkabouts and ran into an unfriendly Level 47 Gengar? Because your rubbish Level 7 Squirtle is not going to get a chance to do anything before getting destroyed, and it certainly isn’t fast enough to successfully run away. That kind of situation would just end up punishing exploration, which completely undermines the point of open-world games in the first place.

Now, Sword and Shield does seem to have a special area that is inspired by these complaints. A big wide area subtly called the “Wild Area” which consists of a big open space to explore and find Pokémon in. To me, it looks kind of bland and empty, but thankfully, the majority of the game still seems to consist of handcrafted routes. So it seems Game Freak are trying a “Why not both?” approach. It won’t shut this criticism up, but oh well.

In conclusion, Pokémon Sword and Shield is still mostly a mystery to us at this point and in the end, I’ll probably play it and enjoy the game. It can’t be much worse than Let’s GO anyway. It’s certainly easy to criticise these games and some of those complaints are probably justified, but it might help to think about whether what you want Pokémon to change into is even a Pokémon game anymore.

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